NOTE: The following blog is excerpted from a book I am writing about the subject.
I do not attempt a scholarly treatise on the forces that shaped the early Catholic Church in this blog. There are complex Greek and Roman influences and myths that contributed to the context in which the heroic journey of the Christ found a mission. I don’t really know that much about all the primary sources and don’t have the time to devote to hours and hours of scholarly research. What I do offer are my ideas based on my Lectio Divina of Phil 2:5.
It is important to note these two influences because contemplation takes its heritage from one of them. The two forces that shaped the Catholic Church are the humble, monastic church and the triumphant, royal church. They could not have been more opposite yet tied together by opportunity and common purpose. You may have different names for these. I choose two influences rather than multiple because I want to share with you how I think the Catholic Church today is still in anguish over these two completing yet almost antithetical poles of practice, each having their own assumptions and sets of believers about what Church looks like. Of course, this is oversimplifying such a complex subject, but in my Lectio, I teased out two magnetic-like forces that have shaped Lay Cistercian spirituality. To be honest, I live in both the monastic and monarchical types of poles or influences. Until recently, I had never thought that there even were these forces of history that pull against my faith. They do.
OUR FAITH AS HERITAGE
Not only do individuals have faith but so does the Church Universal, as well as Church of the local. To be clear, I am using Church here to signify those who are still alive on earth practicing their faith, those in Heaven having completed their race and won the crown of victory, and those awaiting purification. Christ is the head and we are members of His body. Over the years, these members practiced their piety and lived out their purpose in life in many ways, one of which was a monastic approach to life, while most found it practical for them to belong to the triumphal, monarchical church. Both traditions are our heritage. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. We deal with the One aspect in this blog.
THE FAITH COMMUNITIES OF THE FIRST THREE CENTURIES OF THE CHURCH
For three centuries, the Church is trying to find its identity. Is it Jewish? Is it Gentile? Is it neither. Read Acts of the Apostles to get a flavor of the controversies. St. Paul writes to the struggling faith communities of the early Church, each with their own particular issues. St. Paul teaches us that all are One in Christ Jesus, no matter who brought the Faith to them. There is no Jew, Gentile but all are one in Christ Jesus. Note that he does not address individuals but rather communities of believers. Faith is not only an individual assent but the individual is enveloped in the faith covenant of the local community through Eucharist and the practice of Christ’s teachings or mercy and forgiveness.
THE MONASTIC CHURCH
By monastic, I do not mean the physical act of joining a monastery, but the contemplative spirituality to seek God and to move from self to God. The Gospels are all about learning how to have in us the mind of Christ Jesus. It is this singular purpose that compels people to focus on loving God with all their hearts, their souls, and their strength and their neighbor as themselves. Following Christ can’t be that easy, can it? Yes and No. Yes, it is that simple, but no, it takes a lifetime of struggle to love with all our hearts. This movement, as I understand it, began in the 3rd Century with Anthony of Egypt (252-356) who lived as a hermit in the desert. St. Benedict (c. 540) wrote his Rule based on the influences of John Cassian, “…A monk and ascetic writer of Southern Gaul, and the first to introduce the rules of Eastern monasticism into the West, b. probably in Provence about 360; d. about 435.” (www.newadvent.org), For my purposes, I am going to use St. Benedict’s Rule as a pivotal point in creating and organizing groups of people to work and pray in the context of community. In the larger sense, the term monastic refers to the contemplative approach all believers use to seek God and grow from self to God by using various practices such as the Eucharist, Liturgy of the Hours, and Lectio Divina.
A few characteristics:
Love God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole strength and your neighbor as yourself. (Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 22:34)
The community is important as the living Body of Christ, those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and those awaiting purification.
Obedience and humility to the will of God are important. This usually takes the form of a community of believers with one visible head, such as abbot, abbess, bishop, superior, or even Pope, to make Christ present to believers. In monastic influence, it is all about seeking God through following a rule of love.
The practice of the behaviors Jesus taught us is important. St. Benedict goes so far as to name them as tools for good works. They are tools, not ends in themselves.
The stress is on simplicity, lack of focus on material goods in favor of the poverty of the body and spirit.
THE MONARCHICAL CHURCH
The second type of church, woven seamlessly with the monastic, is the triumphant church, taking its governance and outward trappings from the royal court, into which it was assumed with the Edict of Milan. “Edict of Milan, a proclamation that permanently established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the outcome of a political agreement concluded in Milan between the Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius in February 313. ) The proclamation, made for the East by Licinius in June 313, granted all persons freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased, assured Christians of legal rights (including the right to organize churches), and directed the prompt return to Christians of confiscated property.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Edict-of-Milan
The Church did not assume the state into itself but was instead transformed by it to what we have today. There is a Pope who is now seen as an emperor of the Faith, complete with crown, crosier, ring, chair (cathedra), courtiers, homage, and similar courtly etiquette. That is the church most people see when they look at the Catholic Church. People who reject the Catholic Church seem to do so because they want something more or they don’t find what they are looking for. I discovered that what I was looking for was right under my nose all along but I did not dig deeper to find it. What I found was the endless riches of heritage and writings of the Apostolic fathers and mothers who struggled with the same issues I have.
In both the Roman and Eastern rites, the influence of the state was evident. Because of the rich heritage of Roman Law, the Church began to codify behaviors and identify which behaviors were appropriate and which were not. You can read the actual text of the Council of Nicea, an early Ecumenical Council (a gathering of all the outlying bishops and religious representatives) to strengthen the Faith of the One Church. www.newadvent.org The heritage of our past is the pathway to the truth of our future. When a friend once asked me what I believed and I responded that I am Roman Catholic, she said she felt sorry for me that I am missing out on loving Jesus and all I had was a bunch of anachronistic laws.
Characteristics of the monarchical church
This includes our heritage, sometimes referred to as tradition, which we hand down to those who are marked with the sign of peace in each age. When someone told me that I what I believed about Eucharist was just my opinion, I responded that it was, also the opinions of all the faithful for the past twenty centuries. Heritage is not the doctrine but also practice, both monarchical hierarchy and monastic practices, that move from self to God. The monarchical church stresses conformity to belief (heritage) of the church, the Body of Christ.
THE NEED FOR TWO DIMENSIONS OF ONE CHURCH
In each age, there is this intense desire to love with your whole mind and heart and strength and your neighbor as yourself. (Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 22:34) It is sometimes this mystical dimension of spirituality that is missing in those who just see the church as being monarchical or hierarchical, keeping the rules and complying with what the church says, even when it is not what the church actually says but what some priest thinks it says.
Stay close to the teachings of the Holy Father, the Ecumenical Councils and the heritage of the church. Authority to bind and lose for the One Church was given to Peter and his representative, not someone who might disagree with this or that teaching.
You can give your opinion as to a Bible passage or revelation from the Holy Spirit, but remember to temper all spirituality with obedience and humility to the visible representative of Christ on earth, be that woman or man.
“I am not you; you are not me; God is not you and you, most certainly, are not God.” mfc
If authority and knowledge pertain to the mind, then contemplation and service pertain to the heart. Both dimensions are needed as said in the Baltimore Catechism’s definition of the purpose of life (which I learned in 7th Grade), “to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with God in the next.”
Bringing God’s own energy into you means it must do something as a result of being in your spirit. I call that service, but some call it good works. You can’t have God inside you and be the same you. The tools for good works are found in St. Benedict’s Rule, Chapter 4. I read it every day. If you are Protestant, good works as I use it are the spiritual outcomes or products of having in you the mind of Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:6), not actions to buy your way to Heaven. Faith is a gift, not a birthright and we can lose it as easily if we take it for granted.
BOTH CHURCHES ARE ONE
I had a big problem trying to comprehend how my friends could be fallen away from the Faith of the Church and yet happy as an Episcopal. Why was I so satisfied with my Church and others couldn’t find what I did? First, no judgments here. I actually took two years instructions to be Anglican and decided I could not support their notions of Eucharist and Authority. I have no problems with others who can do that. This situation caused me to question my own Church and what you read is the result of my Lectio Divina about it.
There is only One Church with two dimensions, based on the influences inherited down through the centuries. The depth of this Church is bottomless, as far as I can tell. You won’t access it unless you first recognize it and then move into the monastic or contemplative mindset. I did that by aspiring to be a Lay Cistercian and following the Rule of st. Benedict to the best of my ability as a layman. I can let it consume me, if I am not careful, which is why I need balance in my spiritual life. The monarchical church provides me with balance in terms of my heritage and doctrines that come from the Apostles. These teachings are reflected in each age by the teachings of the Holy Father and the Ecumenical Councils.
The key for me is this. The monastic church has opened up for me the ability to seek God through Cistercian practices that lead to charisms (good works) of humility, hospitality, obedience, silence, solitude, work, pray, and community. I have discovered how to move from self to God, although I am far, far removed from being there, I know what the end-game looks like and I want to strive for it with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength by loving neighbor as myself.
That in all things, may God be glorified. –St. Benedict